Review

Review: HTC Sensation - a dual-core superphone

The HTC Sensation is HTC’s first venture into the dual-core smartphone market, and despite other market offerings delivering some Tegra 2 power inside, HTC decided to stick with their trusted Qualcomm processors this time. Combine that with a 4.3-inch qHD display, 8 MP camera and 768 MB of RAM and you have the Sensation powerhouse.

Visually similar to the HTC Desire HD and EVO 4G but with a more curved nature, the Sensation takes the top spot in the HTC pecking order. It’s also the first HTC smartphone to come with Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread out of the box, and it's loaded with HTC Sense 3.0 which is somewhat similar to the Sense we saw earlier on the HTC Flyer.

Our HTC Sensation for review was kindly provided by MobiCity, and while the device itself doesn’t have non-app on-board storage, our Sensation and all those from MobiCity come preloaded with a 8 GB Class 6 microSD.

Specifications

The HTC Sensation is the first major public showing of Qualcomm’s first dual-core mobile, third generation Snapdragon chipset. Inside the Sensation we see the Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon chipset, which comes with a 45nm 1.2 GHz dual-core Scorpion processor, Adreno 220 GPU and HSPA+ radios. Essentially this chipset is the direct successor to the MSM8x55 featured in devices such as the HTC Desire HD, HTC Incredible S, Sony Xperia Play and so on, and should be considerably faster due to double the cores and boosted GPU capabilities.

  HTC Sensation
Product Codes Z710e
GSM Bands 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
3G Bands HSDPA 900 / 2100
Display 4.3-inch 540x960 (qHD) S-LCD
4-point capacative multi-touch
Processor 1.2 GHz Scorpion dual-core
Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon chipset
Graphics Adreno 220
RAM 768 MB
Storage 1 GB user application space
8 GB included microSD (Class 6)
microSD expansion slot
Connectivity WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
WiFi hotspot
DLNA
Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP
A-GPS
Camera 8 MP rear with autofocus and dual-LED flashes
VGA front
1080p video recording (rear)
VGA video recording (front)
Ports MicroUSB (charging, data)
3.5mm audio jack
Sensors Accelerometer
Gyro sensor
Magnetometer
Light sensor
Proximity sensor
Battery Li-ion 1,520 mAh removable
Launch OS Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread
HTC Sense 3.0 skin
Launch Date May 2011
Size & Weight 126.1 x 65.4 x 11.3 mm
148g

Other standout specifications of the Sensation include the 8 MP camera with 1080p video recording and dual-LED flashes, the 4.3” S-LCD display with qHD resolution and the sheer size of the device due to the display.

Design

Taking cues from the devices that came before it, the HTC Sensation’s body is a mixture of both soft-touch plastic, aluminium and Gorilla Glass. At a first glance it appears as though the Sensation has a true aluminium unibody design, however as the entire back panel can be removed to access the battery, the “unibody” design is actually two large parts.

The front of the device is dominated by the huge 4.3” display embedded in sturdy Gorilla Glass; below it lay the buttons in the Home, Menu, Back, Search order. As it seems that each manufacturer likes to use a different order for the buttons it could take some getting used to the buttons in a different order. Above the display is the earpiece with status LED in the right corner of the grill and front-facing camera to the right of that.

In the usual HTC fashion the right side of the device is completely clear of all buttons, and the left has both the volume rocker and microUSB charging/data port. We’re not entirely sold on the left being the ideal position for the USB port as the cable can get in the way when holding it while charging; we think the top or bottom is a better spot.

To the top is the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack, and to the bottom is the cover release button. On the rear of the device are the usual HTC and HTC Sense brandings, plus camera and flashes to the left and speaker grill to the right.

The overall footprint of the Sensation is quite large due to the huge screen on the front, and while it’s not gigantic in the hand it does at times feel cumbersome due to the weight of the metal body. While devices such as the iPhone 4 and Samsung Galaxy S II are battling it out for the slimmest device on the market, the Sensation is content with being 11.3mm thick – it’s definitely not huge and the curved body makes it feel deceptively thinner when you’re holding it.

While the Sensation has a fantastic build quality in terms of both looks and expensive materials (and weight), there are a few gripes to be had about the design. First is that the joining edge between the glass display and metal body seems to be a major attractor of dust and is awkward to clean. Secondly, the rear camera is inset from the back cover by about 1mm which again seems to be a hotspot for all dust to collect over the lens; the upside is this inset will prevent scratches on the lens but does make it difficult to clean.

In The Box

Opening the box gives you the HTC Sensation front and centre, and taking the device out reveals the other goodies inside the box. You get a black box containing the instruction manuals and other information, a set of HTC headphones with inline microphone, soft fabric earbuds, HTC USB wall charger with detachable UK (Type G) plug and microUSB charging cable.

In our larger box from Mobicity we also received an extra microUSB charging cable, an extra Australian (Type I) USB wall charger and universal-to-Australia plug adapter. If you do purchase the device through Mobicity we recommend using the included HTC wall charger with an international adapter (such as the one included) as usually the HTC wall chargers are of a higher amperage than 3rd party ones and thus will charge your phone quicker.

We’d also like to mention the quality of the included HTC headphones. They are not of the in-ear type but more iPod/iPhone style and so don’t fit in your ear as well as the in-ear ones. The quality of audio from the Sensation to the earphones is not particularly great, and while it can be improved by using SRS mode (more on that later) we recommend using a better quality set of earphones if you want to listen to music.

The Display

Obviously one of the biggest selling points of the HTC Sensation is the beautiful 4.3-inch 540 x 960 (qHD or one-quarter of a Full HD resolution) Super LCD display with 4-point capacitive multi-touch sensing. With Motorola adopting the qHD resolution for their Atrix device and now HTC with their Sensation, qHD is looking to take down the usual 480 x 800 WVGA resolution we have seen with so many high-end devices in the past.

There are four big areas to look at with the display on the Sensation: how readable text is with the qHD resolution, how vibrant the colours are in comparison to an AMOLED display, the depth of whites and blacks, and viewing angles.

The resolution of the qHD display (top in image below) is a great improvement over that of a standard WVGA (bottom). When zooming all the way out with the Neowin homepage on both types of display, where the qHD makes the smallest text readable it is simply not readable at all on the 480 x 800 display. This means that if you have good enough eyesight, you won't need to zoom as much when reading webpages and also get the added bonus of crisper images and less jagged lines (where apps support the larger resolution).

In terms of color output and black/white levels, any AMOLED display is going to look more vibrant in this area and when comparing the S-LCD of the Sensation to the Super AMOLED on the Galaxy S this held to be true. The S-LCD gave the brighter and stronger whites, but the AMOLED came through with true blacks (the screen is giving no light for blacks) and more vibrant colors.

That said, after much deliberation it looks like the S-LCD’s color output is closer to “real life” than the AMOLED, with the latter seemingly oversaturating images and giving a generally cooler color output. This is accentuated in the image above, as the Sensation’s display (top) appears to have closer to real life skin tones and a warmer black gradient, while the Galaxy S’s AMOLED display (bottom) was cooler but more vibrant in the field and plate images. Note that both displays were at full brightness in this image.

It may seem like we are making the difference between the two displays sound huge in terms of color, but in fact it is not really the case. The S-LCD and Super AMOLED both look quite similar when put next to each other and it’s only when you look closely do you notice the differences. The S-LCD does have the better whites and truer colors while the AMOLED has the better blacks and viewing angles (see above) so you have to make a decision: do you want your display to look closer to life with bright whites or have more vibrant colors and a great black-white contrast?

Software

What we have running on the HTC Sensation is Android 2.3.3 plus HTC’s Sense 3.0 custom skin which replaces a number of stock Android apps with custom versions. In a lot of cases (browser, camera, music, messages, etc.) the HTC apps are better quality and easier to use than their stock Android counterparts, however in some other cases we are half-hearted on whether HTC does a better job than Google.

HTC Sense 3.0 on the Sensation is very similar to the version of HTC Sense we first saw on the HTC Flyer tablet:

First off is the launcher, which is a seven panel rotator with slick 3D effects when you slide between screens. Widgets appear to expand in a 3D manner and the screens slide in a cube-like way, which really shows the power of the CPU inside the Sensation. Speaking of widgets, HTC has included loads, ranging from your bookshelf to music, email, news and more. There are so many widgets you quite possibly will have a hard time choosing between them.

For the lockscreen, HTC has gone with a ring that is slid up to unlock, plus four (changeable) application shortcuts that if dragged into the ring will launch the respective program. This is a fantastic idea and makes on-the-fly launches of apps such as the browser super quick. The Music app also adds a tile to this lockscreen which allows you to switch songs and pause/play, and when you receive an SMS a preview will appear here. Beware though, as if you set a lockscreen pattern you will not be able to use any of these features any more.

There is also a custom Sense notification pane with a task manager and quick settings built in via tabbed panes. Out of all the Sense features, this is visually the worst part, however it functions smoothly.

There are too many apps to go into detail on each of them, but obviously there are some important ones. Like the Flyer, you do get the News (Google Reader feed syndicator), Reader (book library) and Watch (movie streaming that doesn’t really work) applications and they are identical to their Flyer counterparts.

More importantly you have apps such as the browser, which is a mixture of the stock Android browser and a HTC Sense skin. The skin does not slow down browser performance whatsoever and does include attractive panels and a very nice window and bookmark manager. It also includes Flash support as all Android 2.2+ devices do.

Performance throughout the browser is very good. Pinch-to-zoom and panning around web-pages is very quick, fluid and without any sort of lazy checkerboarding or re-rendering. Even intensive websites such as Engadget and the BBC are no sweat for the dual-core CPU in the Sensation and it feels even smoother than the very smooth experience we had with the Flyer. Flash is also very fast on the Sensation and the processor manages to quickly scale items in real time.

The Messaging and People apps both have improved interfaces from stock Android and the Sense versions that came before. Messaging on the Sensation is great thanks to the Messaging app and multi-touch enabled Sense keyboard. The People app is perfectly optimized for the screen size and resolution while delivering a solid set of features including a brand of HTC Facebook/Twitter integration that can also be used with the Peep and FriendStream applications.

Just on the FriendStream application, it does include a lot of features such as support for Facebook Places check-ins plus sorting statuses into Photos & Videos, Links and so on, and it does make a good place to get updates from both Facebook and Twitter. However, we do think that the Android Facebook and Twitter applications are better to use and more full featured than the FriendStream Sense application, but for contact integration’s sake you should still set up FriendStream even if you are never going to use it.

We did mention earlier some apps that we are half-hearted about. We are not too sure that the Sense Calendar application is better than that included with stock Android and the only real benefit to it is that it shows weather for upcoming events/days. If you are a Gmail user, the Mail app is useless, and the Gallery app lacks the awesome 3D effects that are present in the stock Android Gallery app.

We are glad to see HTC include a Flashlight app that powers on the rear LED flashes when you need to light things up. There is also the included Teeter game that was present in previous versions of Sense which is a fun, 3D accelerometer based game. HTC have also included a Dice app, where you can flick your phone around to roll up to five 3D dice and dice with up to 20 sides – useful for board games.

To finish up on software, the qHD display and dual-core processor work surprisingly well with 3rd party applications. We thought there might be some issues getting apps to display properly on the increased resolution, but apart from some in-app images/textures getting stretched out beyond their intended sizes, it was a pretty smooth process. Most games we tried also worked fine and accommodated the screen and processor.

Performance

The performance of the HTC Sensation is going to be a big factor of this review, after all it is the most powerful HTC device yet. One of the big devices that it will be going after is the Samsung Galaxy S II, which like the Sensation comes loaded with a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor; except the GSII’s CPU is Samsung-made rather than Qualcomm-made.

Obviously using the interface and apps present on the HTC Sensation is blisteringly fast – so fast that fast does not describe just how fast the device is to use. Loading apps takes mere fractions of a second, the 3D interface just flies and the browser is smoother than any other mobile browser we have seen. There is no doubt that the two cores inside are to blame for the ridiculous speed and it puts last-gen single core phones such as the Galaxy S and Desire HD to shame.

One of our favourite applications to test on high-end devices is Trendy Entertainment’s Dungeon Defenders. As it’s a fully 3D fantasy game that utilizes the Unreal Engine and OpenGL capabilities of mobile chipsets, it really tests the power of the phone at hand. We have never really seen the game run smoothly on a single-core device, but on the HTC Sensation it is the smoothest we have ever seen it. It’s quite fluid and runs at least at 30 FPS with only slight lag at the start of waves, and is definitely playable.

Now on to some synthetic benchmarking. Normally we would use Quadrant to benchmark our Android device here, but as Quadrant is not dual-core optimized (and only scores around 2,100), we are trying out Smartbench 2011 for general performance (it’s dual-core optimized) and GLBenchmark for GPU testing.

Our two benchmarks seem to be in contradiction. On one hand we have Smartbench which is putting the Sensation third out of the four dual-core phones in productivity and last in games index. Then we have GLBenchmark 2.0, which places the Sensation third for GPU power. What’s also interesting are the discrepancies between the two Tegra 2 devices (Optimus 2X and Atrix) in Smartbench, which must be some sort of error as the Optimus 2X is certainly not on par with the Galaxy S II’s performance

From our benchmarks we can say that the HTC Sensation’s Qualcomm MSM8260 is slightly faster than the Tegra 2 processor, but not faster than the Galaxy S II’s chip. Looking at GLBenchmark in particular, you see that per pixel the Adreno 220 in the Sensation is faster than the Tegra 2. The Atrix with the similar qHD display performs worse than the Sensation and the Optimus 2X with the lesser WVGA display does similarly, despite the Sensation needing to push out 1.35x the pixels.

Camera

You can’t really expect too much out of a phone camera these days, as most seem to be quite average in the grand scheme of things. The camera on the Sensation is no exception: it’s an 8 megapixel shooter with dual-LED flashes and 1080p recording, yet it’s neither bad nor good.

To start the sample shots, above we have the usual daylight flower shot taken from ~15cm, which really shows the color clarity and focal range of the camera in the best possible way. The photo on the right is that of a fire access post and is again quite a good quality shot.

Above here we have the wide daylight shot. We haven’t really seen a phone camera take a good one of these shots, and with the Sensation’s shot we see poor contrast (the scene in real life was more vibrant) and low crispness in the tree areas, made more obvious by the 100% crop in the right hand corner.

Here we have indoor shots. The bookshelf shot was taken with moderate-high sun backlighting and looks quite good, and the Xbox 360 controller shot was taken with the front-facing VGA camera – it’s worse than the rear camera in terms of fidelity and color balance. On the right hand side is a low light comparison between with and without flash: without the flash the subject (the lava lamp) was quite grainy and with the flash it seems to wash the colors out and produce a spotlight-type effect.

Below is a video we took while walking to take some of the camera shots. The video is 1080p and some of the scenes (mostly close-ups) look quite sharp and have good color quality, however again the wide shots are lacking. The Sensation also seems to like having the camera held away from the body to capture voice properly and lacks autofocus; you can tap the screen to focus but it won’t focus automatically.

Media Playback & Call Quality

With media playback one of the first areas to look at is music playback. The HTC Sense 3.0 music player application is quite nice to use, and combined with the 3.5mm headphone jack and large screen the Sensation should be a fantastic device to use with your media collection.

The rear speaker on the Sensation is, as you would expect, terrible. Bass is virtually non-existent as mid- and high-range tones dominate all playback, and towards the upper volume levels playback becomes distorted. Setting the inbuilt sound enhancer to SRS enhancement mode does make the rear speaker sound better, but it’s still not great. Also, the Sensation’s speaker isn’t as loud as some other devices we have tested (such as the iPhone 4 and Galaxy S), but still manages to be audible from in a pocket.

Through headphones the Sensation is obviously a lot better. Comparing to our Galaxy S, which in our opinion delivers the best audio playback of any device we have tested, in some instances with some types of headphones the HTC Sensation seems slightly muffled in comparison to the Galaxy S. However this can easily be overcome by fiddling with the sound enhancer – we found SRS mode was best for earphones similar to the HTC included/iPhone ones (the non-noise cancelling in-ear type), while equalizer presets such as Classical and Jazz (surprisingly) were best for noise cancelling headphones/earphones.

On to playback of video media; we put the HTC Sensation to the test with our usual set of common media types:

  • 642x352 (SD) XviD encoded AVI, 2-channel MP3 audio, average bitrate ~1,000 kbps: We had issues with the XviD file playing on the HTC Flyer, however on the Sensation it was better. It wasn’t super smooth but it was certainly watchable without stutter.
  • 640x360 (SD) WMV file, 2-channel audio, average bitrate ~3,100 kbps: Playback of the WMV was fine.
  • 1280x720 (720p HD) H.264 encoded MP4, 2-channel AAC audio, average bitrate ~2,200 kbps: A lot of phones refuse to play this file, however the Sensation played it fine. Note that the phone does not support 6-channel audio (we tested this) so you’ll have to have your files as 2-channel audio for the sound to work.
  • 1280x544 (720p HD) H.264 encoded MKV, 6-channel audio, average bitrate ~1,900 kbps: The MKV file was not recognized by the Sensation and refused to play. This is not surprising considering it is an unsupported file type.
  • 1920x1080 (1080p HD) YouTube MP4, 2-channel audio, average bitrate ~2,800 kbps: The YouTube HD video played back perfectly smoothly and in super-high quality. Thanks to the qHD resolution, the video filled the entire screen

We were happy to see that the Sensation was capable of playing back XviD files well, and all other known/frequently-used codecs worked perfectly well save for the MKV file. You shouldn’t be disappointed with the range of media the Sensation supports, unless your entire collection is in strange formats.

Last but not least we have the call quality; despite the Sensation having so many features it still has the ability to make and receive calls. Through both the earpiece above the screen and the rear speaker, calls were easy to understand and fine in terms of quality. On the other end, the call recipient said the voice wasn’t distorted, very clear and thanks to dual-mics and noise cancellation we were able to be heard even with loud background noise. No problems here.

Battery Life

Inside the HTC Sensation we are seeing a 1,520 mAh Li-ion battery, which doesn’t have a particularly large footprint. On our first rundown test after receiving the device and fully charging it, we managed 1d 7h of battery life before the device died. This was with a small amount of cell usage (texting, calling, internet usage) and some WiFi use to download apps, but for the majority of this time the phone was left alone. This is a good indication of light usage battery life.

With moderate usage, including several hours of internet usage, around an hour of gaming and more than an hour of texting, the Sensation lasted throughout the day with some (30-40%) battery remaining at the end. This is definitely a device which will need charging at the end of the day, but we doubt that you’ll have to charge it more than once, unless of course you are playing Dungeon Defenders non-stop.

If you are trying to drain the battery as quickly as possible by running constant benchmarks, playing intensive 3D games or recording hours of video, we estimate that you could do that in around 3-4 hours from our experiences of playing demanding 3D games. Keep in mind that while this number seems small, it is with ridiculously and abnormally high usage.

Conclusion

The HTC Sensation is a very, very fast phone. It may not be faster than the Samsung Galaxy S II, but it is certainly fast enough that you should notice no lag in any applications or games at this stage of Android's existence. It’s a high-end phone, fast is what you should expect and the Qualcomm dual-core certainly delivers.

But it’s not just the speed of the Sensation that makes it so good, there are several other factors as well. For one, the 4.3” qHD screen is very nice when it comes to pixel count and LCD color reproduction; it’s certainly big enough as well. HTC Sense 3.0 is also a pretty good skin when it comes to it, and it’s speedy and generally improves on stock aspects of Android.

The device is strong, metallic and visually pleasing. Media playback is very good and 1080p video recording is always a bonus. The battery is large enough to get you through a day. The list of positives goes on, and completely dominates all the negative aspects of the phone – you won’t be disappointed if you choose the highest-end HTC device and we certainly highly recommend it.

HTC Sensation

Neowin Verdict: 9.0/10 (Superb)

The Pros The Cons

++ Super fast dual-core chipset
++ Solid aluminium/plastic design
+ HTC Sense 3.0 is better than ever
+ 4.3" qHD S-LCD display is fantastic
+ Front-facing camera; 1080p rear video

- Not as fast as the Samsung Galaxy S II
- Minor body gripes

The HTC Sensation is available now from Mobicity for AU$599 (US$630/£395) unlocked and without a plan. It is also available on several carriers worldwide for differing prices on contract. 

We used the device for 12 days before writing this review. Our device was fully updated (ROM v1.28.707.2 CL69397 2.3.3 “Gingerbread”) at the time of testing & writing and to ensure a bias-free review we will be returning it to Mobicity. 

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